Using the Mac's Auto-Save and Versions Feature

Revert to any previously saved version of a document

When they launched, Auto-Save and Versions fundamentally changed how you work with documents on a Mac. In most cases, they free you from having to manually save as you work. They also let you return to or compare previous versions of the item you're working on.

Unfortunately, Apple didn't provide much information on how to use these new features; you may not even have noticed them. Here's how to use both Auto-Save and Versions to manage your documents and improve workflow.

Instructions in this article apply to devices running Mac OS X Lion (10.7) and later.

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Auto-Save

Auto-Save monitors you as you work on a document. When you pause, it saves the document. If you work continuously, Auto-Save will perform a save every 5 minutes. The auto-saving means that you won't lose more than 5 minutes of work should something unexpected happen, such as a power outage or a cat taking a shortcut across your keyboard.

Auto-Save doesn't create a new document each time it performs a save. If it did, you might eventually run out of drive space. Instead, it only notes the changes you make between saves.

The Auto-Save service appears in any document-based app that saves files to the Mac. Although any app can take advantage of the service, Apple doesn't require developers to include it. Some major productivity apps, such as Microsoft Office, don't use Auto-Save; they use their own file management routines instead.

Versions

The Versions feature works alongside Auto-Save to provide a way to access and compare previous versions of a document you're working on. In the past, you had to use the Save As command to save a document with a different file name, such as Monthly Report 1, Monthly Report 2, etc. Doing so allowed you to make changes to a document without worrying about losing the original. Versions does something similar automatically: It lets you access and compare any version of a document you've created.

Versions creates a new version of a document every time you open it, every hour that you're working on it, and whenever you use a Save, Save Version, Duplicate, Lock, or Save As command. Auto-Save doesn't create new versions; it adds to the current version. You can't use Versions to see how the document looked 5 minutes ago unless you had performed one of the trigger events listed above.

How to Use Auto-Save and Versions

Auto-Save and Versions are on by default. You can't deactivate them, but you do have control over how they work in individual documents.

Apple made some slight changes in how you access Versions information. In OS X Lion and Mountain Lion, you use an app's window title, also known as the proxy icon. Next to the document name is a small chevron that reveals a menu containing the Versions options for the selected document. In OS X Mavericks and later, Apple moved most of the Versions menu items to the app's File menu while leaving the Auto-Save Lock function within the document window's title.

  1. Launch TextEdit, located at /Applications.

    TextEdit on a Mac
  2. When TextEdit opens, select New Document to open a blank file.

    In older versions of macOS, select New under the File menu or press Command+N on your keyboard.

    New Document in TextEdit
  3. Type a line or two of text in the document, and then select File>Save.

    Save under the File menu in TextEdit
  4. Enter a name for the file, and click Save.

    Save window in TextEdit
  5. The document window now shows the name of the document in the window title.

    Document title in TextEdit
  6. Let the mouse pointer hover over the document's name in the window title. A small chevron will appear, indicating that the title is actually a drop-down menu.

    Dropdown chevron in TextEdit
  7. Click the document title to see the available menu items. In OS X Mavericks and later, you'll just see the Locked option, but earlier versions will have more choices.

    Chevron options in TextEdit

Which Auto-Save and Versions Options Are Available?

In older versions of Mac OS X, you'll find all of these options under the title menu in a document. In Mavericks (10.9) and later, you'll find most of them under the File menu. Regardless of where you find them, they all do the same things.

Lock

Clicking the Lock item will lock the document, preventing any changes from occurring. You can't modify or save a locked document without first unlocking it. Locking a document not only prevents inadvertent changes, but also lets you use the document as a template, or as a starting point for a new document.

Unlock

This option only appears in the menu when a document has been locked. Click the Unlock menu item to remove the lock and allow full editing. In later versions of OS X and macOS, the Locked option appears as a checkbox under the document title menu. Uncheck the box to unlock the document.

Unlock option in TextEdit

Duplicate

Clicking the Duplicate menu item creates a copy of the document and places it next to the original. Creating a duplicate allows you to use the original document as a template or a jumping-off point to create a whole new version. If the original document was locked, the duplicate is unlocked, ready for you to make changes. Any changes that you make to the duplicate won't affect the original. The duplicate is a new document, with its own save history and versions.

Revert To

How you revert to an earlier version of a document depends on which version of the OS you're using.

  • Revert to Last Saved is the version for Mac OS X Lion and Mountain Lion. If this option is available, it will include the time and date the last version was saved. Selecting this option will save your document's current state and then restore the last saved version.
  • Revert to appears under the app's File menu in Mac OS X Mavericks and later. It allows you to access previous versions of the current document.

Browse All Versions

When you select this menu item, the display changes to show you a Time Machine-like view of all of the versions of the document. The current version appears on the left; all other versions are on the right. Select a version to compare it to the current document. The time and date of each version appears in the timeline slider on the right, and just below the frontmost document. Clicking Done will return you to the current document; clicking Restore will take you back to the selected version.

Browse All Versions in TextEdit


When using the Browse All Versions option, you can copy an element from any of the versions using the standard copy command. Click and drag to select the desired text, then right-click and select Copy from the pop-up menu. When you return to the standard editing window, you can paste the contents into the target location.

By using the Auto-Save and Versions features, you can work with documents without worrying about accidentally changing a document, forgetting to save it, or experiencing a power outage.